Former FAA official calls for national spaceport policy

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — The former head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space office says the government should create a policy that promotes the development of spaceports as not just launch sites but also as hubs for economic development.

In an Oct. 10 presentation at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) here, George Nield took issue with the conventional wisdom that there is an oversupply of commercial spaceports in the United States.

The FAA has 11 active licenses for commercial spaceports, according to its website. Of those 11, five — Midland International Airport in Texas, Colorado Air and Space Port, Spaceport Oklahoma, Ellington Airport in Texas and Cecil Field in Florida — have yet to host a launch or landing.

Some in government and industry have questioned if there are too many spaceports. One case was last December, when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross discussed commercial space issues in a call with reporters. “I’m a little concerned that there’ll be such a rush to do that that we’ll have too many spaceports,” he said. “What you’ll end up with is a lot of ghost facilities.”

“I strongly disagree with that assessment,” Nield, who retired as associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA in early 2018, said of Ross’s comments.

One reason the country needs more spaceports, he argued, is that the country is vulnerable to a loss of space access if something happens to the handful of spaceports that regularly host launches. “Our current spaceport infrastructure is very limited and is rather fragile and vulnerable,” he said, noting that sites in California and Florida face risks from earthquakes, hurricanes and wildfires, among other threats.

Nield also argued that spaceports should be thought of as more than just launch sites. “Instead of just viewing spaceports as locations from which launches and reentries are conducted, I think it’s also important to recognize that they can serve as focal points and technology hubs,” he said, with roles ranging from research and manufacturing to education.

Realizing that vision, he said, will involve a number of policy and funding changes. That includes enhanced funding for spaceport infrastructure, such as through FAA grant programs. Nield also recommended a change in law to allow “space support vehicles” such as high-speed aircraft that could operate from spaceport to carry paying customers for training purposes.

He also offered some more novel approaches to supporting spaceports. A “teacher in space” program could give one teacher a year from each state a suborbital spaceflight, a program he said would cost $12.5 million a year assuming a ticket price of $250,000 each. Spaceports could also support work on suborbital point-to-point transportation, starting with short-distance flights between nearby spaceports.

What’s needed, Nield said, is an overarching policy to tie those ideas together. “We can articulate and document and then communicate this vision in a new policy,” he said, such as another space policy directive or executive order, or through legislation.

The FAA could also play a role through a new Office of Spaceports authorized in an overall FAA reauthorization bill last year, although that office has yet to be formally established within the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. “I think it could be a great help,” he said. “If we can get that up and running with the appropriate resources, staff and funding, that office could be a huge benefit in terms of being a focal point and an advocate.”

“How many spaceports do we need?” he asked. “As many as it takes to ensure our national security, to maintain technological leadership, enable international competitiveness and provide inspiration for students and development of our aerospace workforce.”